All about that bass
Legendary stand-up bass player Lee Rocker of Stray Cats talks rock ’n’ roll
As the double bass player for the legendary psychobilly band Stray Cats, Lee Rocker has had plenty of personal encounters with larger-than-life rock stars, like one time when Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones stole his jacket.
It was 1985. The trio of Phantom, Rocker and Slick had recently formed following Stray Cats’ breakup the year before, and they were recording their self-titled debut record at Electric Ladyland Studios in New York’s Greenwich Village.
“We put the word out, sent Keith an invitation to play on this record, and we heard that Keith was going to show up at, uh, some point,” Rocker recalled. “We hear a knock on the door one night, and Keith was standing there with his Telecaster. No case, just holding a guitar and an alligator-skin doctor’s bag.”
The bag was full of all kinds of “contraband,” as Rocker put it. Over the course of several hours, they recorded a song—“My Mistake”—and consumed the contents of the bag. Afterward, however, they realized they hadn’t discussed how to pay Richards for the session. But no matter: Richards pulled Rocker’s custom-made leather jacket off of a rack by the door, put it on and left the studio without saying a word.
“Apparently, that’s how Keith gets paid,” Rocker said.
SN&R caught up with Rocker by phone ahead of his concert at Harris Center on Thursday, March 8, which will be part performance, part presentation. With a trio, he’ll play roughly 20 songs, including some of Stray Cats’ biggest hits, and sprinkle in stories about the band’s early days.
When asked to describe the character of his instrument of choice, Rocker said the double upright bass is a big presence both physically and sonically—especially the way he plays it. His slap-happy and percussive style holds down the low end of the sound spectrum while beefing up the rhythm section, too.
“Those slap techniques where you’re knocking out eighth notes and sixteenth notes, it really propels everything and drives it forward,” he said. “It’s the engine for the music, and everything else fits around it.”
The instrument may have taken him around the world and paid his bills for the past 40 years, but any long-term relationship has its ups and downs. For example, he curses its size and weight when he’s lugging it through an airport terminal at 6 a.m.
“It’s a commitment,” he said.
At 56 years old, Rocker plays about 50 to 60 shows a year, drawing on material from his solo career as well as Stray Cats’ catalog. Perhaps the band’s farthest-reaching song is “Rock This Town,” a rockabilly banger defined not only by frontman and guitarist Brian Setzer’s iconic vocals (“We’re gonna rock this town / Rock it inside out”), but also Rocker’s distinctive walking bass line. The song was written in 1980 in Rocker’s dad’s garage in Long Island, New York, and became the band’s breakout hit.
“That was one of the megahits that still looms large,” he said. “That one, I’m damn proud of.”
Stray Cats made a total of 23 gold and platinum records. Though Rocker’s bass playing is elemental to them all, his handiwork is especially apparent in the swagger of “Stray Cat Strut” and the feverishly paced “Rockabilly Rules.” Such songs also demonstrate that the trio played with uncanny cohesion: The bass was the engine, but the greater machine hardly ever flew apart, even at breakneck speeds.
It’s been about a decade since Stray Cats played a show together, but they’re set to headline Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend in April. And in the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, they’re going to pretty much wing it.
“We’re going to run these songs once,” Rocker said, “and then we’re going to walk out on stage.”